Bill to call for online agency forms

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is crafting legislation that would require federal agencies to create online versions of all their forms and put into place mechanisms that would allow citizens to submit these forms and associated payments - such as income tax payments - via digital signature technology.

The legislation called the Government Paperwork Elimination Act would direct the Office of Management and Budget and the Commerce Department to establish a method within a year for agencies to put all forms online according to a copy of the legislation obtained by FCW.

These forms must be constructed so that citizens can fill them out sign them and return them to the agency - all electronically. Private-sector users also would be allowed to submit fees and payments associated with the online forms. Although Eshoo's press secretary declined to comment on the details of the proposed legislation he did say Eshoo plans to introduce it very soon.

The bill would require each agency head to issue guidelines for determining how federal employees would be assigned digital signatures and how those signatures would be used. Digital signature is an emerging technology that is used to confirm the identity of a sender of electronic information and to verify that the data has not been altered. Digital signatures are considered vital to securing electronic commerce via the Internet.

Commerce would create regulations for digital signatures for government use that are compatible with what is used by the private sector for electronic commerce according to the bill.

While many agencies already have begun moving to stem the flood of paperwork associated with many of their processes by posting electronic versions a governmentwide move to electronic forms may prove difficult said Kelly Kavanagh research director at IDC Government a Falls Church Va. market research firm. "It would be a large undertaking because a lot of the manual paper-based processes right now may or may not be backed up by [information] systems " he said.

Joseph Leo deputy administrator for management with the Food and Consumer Service at the Agriculture Department said his department has been aggressively moving to make available electronically forms for states to order food for school lunches. While 29 states now submit these orders electronically it will take until 1999 to move the remaining states to electronic forms Leo said.

The digital signature issue is "a lot tougher " said Leo who also is a member of the Computer Security and Advisory Board at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST has announced plans to form guidelines for agency use of digital signatures.

This issue has been controversial because the digital signature standard that the government has supported differs from the one commonly used in the commercial market. The wide use of digital signatures also requires devising a framework of policies laws and procedures called a public-key infrastructure which the federal government has begun moving toward but has not yet established. Until a government standard is finalized Leo said "I'm not ready to bet the farm."

The Environmental Protection Agency also has been preparing to offer electronic forms according to Alvin Pesachowitz the EPA's chief information officer. While the digital signature piece is key to applications such as allowing citizens to report to regulators electronically the agency plans to be ready to launch applications once the problem is solved he said.

Kavanagh also said the legal framework for using digital signatures - such as who is liable for the use of the technology - is not yet in place. In addition the bill would allow individual agency heads to determine who would issue certificates which contain the digital signatures and confirm that senders and recipients of communications are actually who they say they are.

The agency itself or a trusted third party could issue these certificates according to the bill. This raises questions about how the government would guarantee that a trusted third party's services are acceptable Kavanagh said.

"Digital certificates are the way that will eventually extend trust over the Internet " Kavanagh said. "Now there's a lot to go through between now and then."

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